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Bama Basketball Breakdown: #4 Arizona

As the Tide wraps up its three-game gauntlet, can Nate Oats’ squad finally get over the hump?

Syndication: Journal-Courier Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

After a pair of tantalizingly close losses to top-ten teams away from home the past two weeks, the Alabama Crimson Tide (6-4; NET: 11; Kenpom: 8) will round out its gauntlet of a three-game road trip with a showdown in the desert with the #3 Arizona Wildcats (8-1; NET: 2; Kenpom: 3). The Wildcats are coming off of their first loss of the season this past Saturday, as they fell on the road in Indianapolis against - who else - the Purdue Boilermakers, who took the top spot in the AP Poll back from Arizona. Has anyone mentioned how difficult this three-game stretch is?

All jokes aside, the level of difficulty of the Tide’s schedule has definitely become a hot debate around Tide Hoops nation. I’m firmly in the camp that playing difficult games is the way to go in college basketball - just look at Alabama’s metrics in the opening paragraph again. The only potential downside is having the plethora of hard-fought losses start to wear down on a team’s emotional psyche, but I feel confident in Nate Oats’ ability to keep the fellas focused on fighting to improve and starting to turn these close losses into wins. Still, the moral victories have already gotten stale for a program that has suddenly become one the SEC’s best since Oats arrived.

Which brings us back to tonight. Arizona is one of the clear contenders to tear down the nets in April - they have a very experienced team with a ton of talent, and head coach Tommy Lloyd has very much embraced the same analytics-heavy, pace-driven style of ball that Oats employs in Tuscaloosa, which has led to a ton of early success in his three years at ‘Zona. This is going to be yet another uphill battle for Alabama. But a win tonight would validate this entire three-game stretch, and it would prove to the world that this year’s team is ready to contend for another SEC crown. Either way, the Tide is going to be entering conference play with a NET in the top 20, at worst. Give me these battles over ugly, boring slop-fights with the Mercers of the world any day.

The Roster

Starting Five

Kylan Boswell (#4, SO, G, 6-2): 11.7 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 4.6 APG

Caleb Love (#2, SR, G, 6-4): 15.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 4.3 APG

Pelle Larsson (#3, SR, G, 6-5): 12.0 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 3.3 APG

Keshad Johnson (#16, SR, F, 6-7): 13.9 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.7 APG

Oumar Ballo (#11, SR, C, 7-0): 12.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.0 APG

Off the Bench

Jaden Bradley (#0, SO, G, 6-3): 4.4 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 1.7 APG

KJ Lewis (#5, FR, G, 6-4): 6.0 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.6 APG

Paulius Murauskas (#23, FR, F, 6-8): 5.2 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 0.3 APG

Filip Borvicanin (#1, SO, F, 6-9): 4.8 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.5 APG

Motiejus Krivas (#14, FR, C, 7-2): 8.1 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 0.7 APG

Some of these names should look very familiar to Alabama fans - most notably Jaden Bradley. We’ve bemoaned some of the decisions that a few players from last year made about their futures this past offseason (*cough Bediako cough*), but Bradley’s departure was one of the most head-scratching ones. He’s basically playing the exact same role in Arizona that he would have here in Tuscaloosa as the sixth man for the Wildcats. In a near-identical system. I know Bradley was caught up in the off-the-field drama from last season, so maybe he just wanted a change of scenery, but he’s basically been the same player for Arizona that he was for Alabama last year, albeit his shooting has been better in a smaller sample (43.6%/60.0%/50.0%).

Keshad Johnson should ring a bell as well. He’s the elite wing defender (85.5 DRtg) who absolutely smothered Brandon Miller in the Sweet Sixteen last season for San Deigo State. Guy is tough as nails and one of the best rebounders on the team (15.9% REB%). He’s a capable shooter but he does most of his damage getting into the paint (56.8%/34.6%/80.0%). Caleb Love is the mercurial guard who North Carolina fans lost years off of their lives watching for three seasons in Chapel Hill. He’s never seen a shot that he didn’t like, and whether or not he was on basically decided 70% of UNC’s games the past three years. It’s been much of the same in Tuscon (42.5%/32.2%/84.4% on 12.6 FGA per game) - just with a better team around him.

The two returning studs for Arizona are Pelle Larsson and Oumar Ballo. Larsson is an elite offensive player, sporting a ridiculous 143.8 ORtg. He can score from anywhere on the floor (62.3%/60.0%/84.6%). Ballo is the latest dominant big man that the Tide will have to contend with (68.0% FG%; 15.2% REB%; 87.1 DRtg), although he isn’t nearly as skilled as Zach Edey and Ryan Kalkbrenner are. The rest of the Wildcats rotation is full of long players and guys that can really get up and down the floor and shoot it. Sound familiar?

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Continued Development and Strong Play from the Bigs. If I had to take two positive things away from this road trip it’s 1) This team never quits and plays hard for 40 minutes every night and 2) Nick Pringle and Mo Wague are getting there. As far as the latter is concerned, the play of the Tide’s two true bigs is one of the main reasons Alabama has nearly won both games. They’ve been the aggressors on defense and have learned how to be effective around the rim in the PnR and lob game on offense. That development needs to continue, and they need to come ready to play tonight. Arizona has a bunch of big guys that they can throw at you, but none of them are exactly skilled post players. They are more physical threats. Which should be a better matchup for Pringle and Wague. Provided that they can stay on the court, which brings me to my next key...
  2. Stop Fouling. We all know college basketball officiating is the absolute worst. With that being said, God bless do we give up dumb fouls all game. A part of that is a function of Oats’ clear directive to be the aggressors on the court, undoubtedly as a way to try to fire up the guys on the defensive end. But a lot of Alabama’s fouls are straight-up silly. Moving screens, attempted chase-down blocks, grabbing guys 30-feet away from the basket, etc. The Tide is 283rd in the country in Free Throw Rate allowed - teams are living at the charity stripe. Alabama needs to find the fine line between aggressive defense and outright dumb defense.
  3. Get Sears Some Help. If you are just now joining us, you’ve missed out on some of the highest-level offensive basketball any Tide player has ever put together. Mark Sears has been an absolute monster. He is top-35 in the country in Offensive Rating (140.6), Effective FG% (66.4%), and True Shooting % (69.9%). He’s currently a shade under 50% from beyond the arc (48.1% 3P%), and it feels like the only time he isn’t extremely efficient is when he is pressing too much. Early on when the Tide was playing mostly cupcakes, Aaron Estrada and Grant Nelson were torching fools, but they’ve taken a slight step back against elite competition. If Alabama wants to beat a team like Arizona (or Purdue, or Crieghton), someone else is going to have to step it up as a legitimate on-ball threat.

This is Alabama’s last opportunity to get a major win before conference play begins in earnest in January. It will absolutely take the Tide’s best effort to pull it off, but that’s exactly what we said about the last two games as well, and yet Nate Oats’ squad was right there with a chance to win in both. There seems to be a stretch inside ten-minutes where Alabama’s balls-to-the-wall aggressiveness starts to wear on the team itself, so Oats needs to be aware of that going into tonight’s late-night tip.

And boy is it late. The game is scheduled to tip-off at 10:00 PM CST. It will be televised on ESPN as the night cap of a college hoops triple-header. Arizona is favored by 7.5 points, but Alabama has been a cover king in these spots as underdogs under Oats. Of course, that doesn’t mean anything to us as fans. It’s time to start turning these covers into outright wins.

Can the Tide finally get over the hump and stun Arizona tonight?